Founded in the sixth century BCE by the former Prince Siddhartha Gautama, Buddhism was designed as an alternative and improvement over the discrepancies of the religions of his time. Buddhism was developed as more of a way of life and philosophy for right living.
In its core form, Buddhism rejects the concept of a God or gods and the need for some external “savior.” Buddhism places humanity as the supreme vehicle by which it takes responsibility for its actions. Buddhism is not a matter of “faith” but one of seeking for knowledge and knowing the ways to live harmoniously with each other. There is a sense of practicality within the precepts of the Buddhist way. Seeking such metaphysical questions as, “Why am I here” and “Where am I going” are considered counter productive and distracting.
With no particular emphasis on deities, Buddhism instead strives to teach the learning of “Enlightenment”, a blissful state that allows the human spirit to ultimately release itself from the need to continue the cycle of birth, death and reincarnation on the physical plane. It offers teachings to help perfect the spirit through self-control. This is to manifest itself through generosity, humility, mercy and especially in abstaining from violence and destructive behavior.
The basic tenets of the “Eightfold Path” call for the enlightened Buddhist to renunciation of self and to seek the concept of universal love. He is taught to avoid lies, slander, and gossip. An avoidance of indulging in evil of any form is required. This includes not only direct actions like killing, stealing or becoming intoxicated but also to avoid indirect evil such as weapons or drug dealing. They are enjoined to always keep an awareness of both bodily functions and their emotions but the state of mind to thwart evil designs in life around them.
Within a thousand years of Siddhartha’s enlightenment and proclamation of the way, Buddhism did develop some schism within its followers. The Therevada division still places its belief in the more traditional form. It most closely encompasses the ideas of self-responsibility. Mahayana Buddhism incorporates the teachings of other “enlightened” ones to the core teachings. Some of these sects of Buddhism have created hierarchies of demonic entities, and the practices that include, mudra, mantras, and mandalas. While Tibetian Buddhism is still considered a Mahayana form, its focus on ceremony and ritual could make it, in fact, a third division.
In Japan, Buddhism emphasized “Zen.” The concept of Zen is to seek enlightenment and knowledge almost exclusively through meditation and intuition with less influence by past teachings. Buddhism was formalized in Western civilization through the efforts of the Theosophical Society of New York in 1875. With the inherent non-hierarchical nature of Buddhism, it was felt that an umbrella group would make this non-religion more palatable to westerners and thus ease tensions between them. Its “Buddhist Church of America” does have influence on American culture but tends to give Buddhism a more “religious” flavor than the mere life philosophy it is intended to be.